Director – Andrew Dominik
Writer – Andrew Dominik
Starring – Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Brooklynn Proulx, Dustin Bollinger
The western is a genre rarely seen on the big screen nowadays. One or two will crop up every now and then, such as The Proposition and Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, proving that they can still be made. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the latest and a film almost indescribably good.
Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, a young man who ever since he was a boy has looked up to and admired a notorious outlaw by the name of Jesse James (Pitt). He heads the James gang, made up of petty thieves and crooks. The gang is planning on pulling off their last train robbery before retiring to a simpler life. Ford manages to tag along on the last train robbery to show James what he’s got and to hopefully gain the trust and friendship of him. And he manages to earn it and he ends up tagging along with James as he goes in search of a simpler life. But no sooner has the James gang split up when the law begins to find various members and bring them to justice. The paranoid Jesse takes it upon himself to kill all of the ex-members of the gang to avoid them giving him up or killing him for the ransom money. As Jesse becomes increasingly paranoid Ford begins to fear for his own life which leads to the destiny of the two men.
Although not a western in the traditional sense the film still has the open freedom of them but at the same time maintaining the intricacies, feelings and a close view on the personal lives of its characters. In particular the lives of Affleck and Pitt in the title roles. We first see Robert tagging along with his older brother Charlie, quietly watching James and his gang as they eat and swap stories. He is a quiet, observing man who wouldn’t as much as hurt a fly unless he had to. We see him slowly go from quiet observer to an almost sidekick of his outlaw idol. Affleck plays the character with such grace and commitment that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role or that anyone else could have done a better job. His shifty eye movements, his ability to appear unconfident and meek and just his general sense of making the character believable is simply astounding. In my opinion he hasn’t really been given the chance to show off the talent he clearly has until now.
As good as Affleck is in this film I can’t fail to mention the wonderful supporting performances. From the normally criminally underused Sam Rockwell to the surprisingly well acted turn by Jeremy Renner. But of course the highlight of the film is Brad Pitt in the title role of Jesse James. Despite his magnanimous celebrity status he still is one hell of an actor, one who is particularly fascinating to watch when given the meatier roles. He has the rare ability as an actor to say so much without even opening his mouth. His eye movements and his tension filled moments of brooding silence allow you just to bask in the magnificent performance given by him. Although not my favourite performance of his career, that would be Fight Club, but it is arguably his best. I will be gob smacked if Pitt doesn’t get some sort of recognition at the Oscars next year as I will be if the rest of the cast don’t either. It’s almost criminal that there can be so many amazing performances in one film.
For many this may one of the films of the year that they walk out of. Not because it’s a bad movie, as this is clearly the opposite of that, but because they no doubt expected an action packed, shoot-em-up western. And although there is a little gun-shooting sprinkled here and there throughout the film for the most part it is deliberately slow paced affair, concentrating less on money-shots and more on getting up close and personal with its characters.
Besides the amazing performances and wonderful storytelling the film has some of the best cinematography that I have seen in years. Similar to Terrence Mallick’s The New World, a film I didn’t like except for the visuals, this is a breathtakingly beautiful film that made my jaw drop more than a few times. It has what I have come to expect and enjoy most about westerns and that is wide, full and open shots of the landscape, often with mostly sky on-screen or up-close shots of the western fields. The colour of the film is crucially washed out at certain points while vivid and eye-catching at crucial others. From moment one of the film, as we see a fast-forwarded shot of clouds moving across the sky, I was hooked until the very end.
An element of telling the film’s story is through the use of narration. This can be a needless and boring thing to have in a film but here it is used perfectly in the set of key scenes it is used within. At any moment we will be told by the narrator what a character is about to do and then we get to see it a few seconds later on-screen; it may sound a little annoying but trust me it is crazily effective.
A notable technique employed in the film is the use of a blurred vision at various points. This is used to accentuate a certain character or object leaving everything else within the frame less important. It is an interesting thing to do but again it is so effective.
Yet another brilliant aspect of the film is the musical score. It is not used to force emotion or reaction, writer/director Andrew Dominik allows the characters, dialogue and visuals do that, but simply used to create atmosphere or mood. The score had my spine tingling more than once throughout the movie which is very rare for me.
If Jesse James himself were to hold a gun to my head and force me to find a flaw within the film it would be an extremely minor one. Many found the film’s weakness to be it’s very conclusion but personally I had no problem whatsoever with that. My tiny problem was the way the film mentioned different characters that were a little hard to keep track of. A name will be mentioned at a certain moment and it would take me a few minutes to think back to previous scenes to remember who it is they’re talking about. Like I said this is a minor flaw, one that can be forgiven in a heartbeat.
The Assassination of Jesse James is pretty much brilliance personified. It has almost everything you could want in a movie; amazing acting, gorgeous cinematography, unique direction, chair-clawing tension and much, much more. The precision and attention to detail from everyone involved is simply stunning. This is not, however, the mainstream film it may at first seem to be. This is a slow paced, long and sprawling film that will no doubt leave the average Joe movie-goer a bit under whelmed if expecting an action packed, shoot-em-up. I strongly encourage any quality seeking cinema goers to see Jesse James to simply witness the best film of 2007 so far.